A New View of Pumpkin
by Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely
The year I lived in England I acquired two close English friends. Our children went to the same schools and, walking beside Daphne’s pram or, with Olivia, watching our sons on the playing field, we young mothers moved from acquaintance to friendship to trust. We began to talk about personal things. And what could be more personal than food?
That autumn, I asked each, separately, what was their least favorite American food. In that custard-loving land of nursery puddings and possets, fools and flummery—whose 18th-century milords on the Grand Tour to Rome gave the name zuppa inglese (“English soup”) to a trifle dessert—each of my friends immediately said pumpkin pie!
Pumpkin pie, that comfort food of harvest home? How could anyone dislike pumpkin pie? I wondered. Maybe just because it’s so bland and because they didn’t share in our collective memory of Pilgrims and Indians at the First Thanksgiving, a myth that American children grew up with back then.
This set me thinking. It’s true that we Americans are most unadventurous with pumpkin. Other kinds of squash we eat every which way throughout the year: sweet and savory, hot and cold, sliced, chopped, puréed, stuffed, roasted, fried, baked in breads and cakes, alone or mixed. But our imagination seizes up when it comes to pumpkin, especially on the Thanksgiving table where that soothing custard pie is sacrosanct.
The word pumpkin is a vague term, not a botanical one. Cucurbita is the family genus, with many branches for these gourds or squashes, which easily cross with each other forming yet new varieties. For this article the focus is on pumpkins for eating, C. pepo, rather than those bred for carving into jack-o-lanterns at Halloween or for size competitions. (The record for C. maxima, just so you’ll know, is 1,810 pounds—grown last fall by Chris Stevens in Wisconsin. What will this year bring?)
Usually, in this country, pumpkin means a large hard-skinned winter variety with stringy, seedy core and usually orange skin (sometimes white). For cooking and eating, smaller varieties are preferable. They tend to have deep orange flesh that is drier, firmer and less fibrous, with a more pronounced and often sweeter flavor. The Small Sugar pumpkin and Baby Pam, both sold at about five to eight pounds, are typical varieties today.
Farmers markets and grocery stores have many types of large winter gourds now. Partly this is due to immigration from regions of the world where these squashes have long been appreciated in cooking. Turk’s Cap, Kuri, Kabocha and Calabaza, sometimes exotic in their forms, stripes and colors as well as names, join the Culshaw, Butternut and Hubbard in an array of hues at local markets. The flesh of all of them can be used in place of each other in cooking and also for that of the pumpkin, which is hard to find outside the fall season.
The flavor of all of these pumpkins and bigger winter squashes is mellow but not necessarily bland, especially when combined with other aromatic, spicy or assertive ingredients, qualities that are complemented and absorbed. Pumpkin and other winter squashes are high in vitamin A (the deep orange ones are especially high in beta carotene), with additional vitamins, iron and potassium. They are very low in calories and sodium, yet filling and inexpensive. Let’s look at some new ways to jazz up our autumn table, ones that might make Daphne and Olivia take notice.
Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely's articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her cookbook, A Feast of Fruits, was published by Macmillan in 1983. Her dictionary, The Chef's Companion (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd edition), remains in print after 25 years. She was editor of The Culinary Times, published by the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, from 2000 to 2009. Her article on "John James Audubon's Tastes of America" was in the Summer 2011 issue of Gastronomica. Beth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.